Of Obituaries and Ascensions

We are a creature, my friends, who intertwines death so tightly with life, that we find ourselves marking the different ages within the marching years of our days by the way particular passings lace about our hearts.

I write that atrocious opening sentence with a bittersweet smirk, hoping that Brian Doyle, the brilliant author and editor whose death occasioned the sentiment, is smiling at it's ridiculousness somewhere in Heaven. I almost had the occasion to meet the man--he was slated to come speak at Mercy College here in Des Moines this last Spring--but the diagnosis of a brain tumor unraveled our plans. I suppose it was the almost-nature of the nearly-happy meeting that has stuck with me, and made writing this little post so difficult. Brian's work is beloved, and rightly so (his poem "Leap" is one of the most memorable works of art regarding the tragedy of 9/11), but at heart, he is a story teller seemingly before anything else, and I am disheartened that I do not have a better story to tell in his honor.

Instead, I am left with my opening, tortuous thought. Nevertheless, though the sentence may be gaudy, the sentiment is true, and I cannot shake the sense that this news of Brian's death has marked a new era in my life. All this, coupled with other recent more personal passings, render me somehow feeling "officially" in the "middle of my life" now, in a manner that 30-something birthdays never seemed to do. "In the midst of life, we are in death" says the old prayer I suppose. But a particular fact--that Brian died two days after the Feast of the Ascension--I think is a key to this new found self-regard of mine. And sitting here after Trinity Sunday, it is this event of Our Lord, which sets off the Crowning Feasts after Easter, that animates my thoughts.

Jesus tells us straight out, "it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you." (John 16:7). But I must admit with my very human heart that I hardly believe Him some days. Really Lord? With all that goes wrong, it is best that you go? With all the ways even  your own people go astray and ruin your good name, there is a better idea than you sticking around? With coffins and obituaries fresh in my mind, I ask, you could not have helped if you were here?

And while it is absolutely true that He abides with us in the Eucharist (which countless people have spoken of with power and beauty), and though it is more than evident that the Holy Spirit truly does breathe the fiery life of God into His Bride the Church, I say we have not truly listened to the story of the Ascension if we have not stood baffled by it, like the Apostles looking dumbfounded into the sky. 

When I was much younger, I was enthralled by sermons which side-stepped this question by pointing to "what happened next." That, of course, is the ACTS of the Apostles, the story proving that ours is not a religion of standing around, but a kinetic force on earth, and which Luke's second book demonstrates so well. So we pray the first Novena between the Ascension and Pentecost, so we find new life in the Spirit at Pentecost, and so with the remainder of Ordinary Time we effuse that life which pours forth from the Holy Trinity. No doubt to this day I find myself lost in the change and transformation that comes over the Disciples once their Master has left them, and see the redoubling gust of the Spirit's mighty breathe.

But for the past few weeks, in this newfound middle-age of mine, I have been stuck thinking of the fact that He left them in the first place. Why could He not have stayed with us? Why, to quote from the book of John once more, are we blessed precisely because we have not seen Him, yet still believe? Could I have not been tasked with believing, Lord, with you standing here next to me?

But my friends, this is the inescapable warp and weft of the world in which we live: things pass away. People depart. Circumstances change. And as it says in the book of Hebrews, here we have no lasting city. Jesus left this world because we too must leave it someday. And everyone we love. And everything we know. And everything that we hold dear. 

What kind of Religion would we have that ignored this central, brutal, and yet astonishing fact of our existence, that we are so very much a part of this world, but only for a time? And even more baffling and astounding, He did not teach us this by immediately leaving after He rose from the dead. No, he stuck around, but only for a time! The earth it seems can bear the trodding of Resurrected feet upon it, but only for a span of days! The Saints can inhale and exhale this atmosphere, but only, only for a demarcated amount of minutes! 

We only have each other, but only for so long. We only have breathe enough to retell our stories, but for a time, and then we must pass them on to someone else to tell them. We only have so much we can do here, either with the help of the Saints who went before us, or as Saints ourselves, before the old heavy world sends us off on our refulgent way. Our lives within each others lives are to be lived out as a prelude to these heart-rending, glorious Ascensions. May we keep this task of ours ever in mind, and when the time comes for another's passing, may we find the strength to admix our attendant, understandable sorrow with the expectant, eager awaiting for the Comforter.      

 

This Saying is Hard

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’

                                                            -John 6:60

At moments in my life, I’ve struggled to reconcile myself with the teachings of my beloved Catholic faith. These moments usually come right before periods of new growth in my life and sometimes that growth is painful. Sometimes it’s almost excruciating to subjugate my will to the demands of my faith, particularly in regard to suffering and family planning.  Sometimes, like my battle with the Catholic teaching on family planning, I have to grapple with skepticism and ongoing fear and place my life in the hands of the Lord. For example, although I understand the beautiful teachings behind the Theology of the Body and I want to incorporate them into my life, Natural Family Planning pushes the boundaries of my comfort zone because I love to be in control of my own life and I often lay out meticulous plans on how my life should be, or ought to be. Instead of entrusting my future to the God who knows and loves me best, it’s very easy for me to be overwhelmed with fear that God is going to ruin my life If He doesn’t exactly follow the plans I’ve made for myself. It’s far too easy for me to try to edge God out of my life and close myself to any of his possibilities. In addition, I am easily cowed by secular world’s judgmental stance on not using contraception, the view that children are burdensome, and am often blinded by the world’s empty promises of fulfillment through self-reliance and pleasure seeking. Sometimes I feel a little jealous because maintaining the Lord’s laws puts a damper on being “carefree” and “fun.” During my weak moments, I feel like retreating from what God demands of me because the Church’s teachings are so radically different than the world’s and I don’t want to accept those teachings.

It’s not always easy to be a Christian and Catholicism is often called out for the boundaries that it places on human selfishness. But Christians struggling with Christ’s word dates back to the time of Christ Himself. In John 6:60, after Christ reveals the radical and very physical truth of the Eucharist, many disciples say, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” When the teachings are hard to accept, the results are the same: people either walk away, back to the world, or people hunker down and experience the creative burn of new growth and truth. Christ invites us to intimately join Him and trust Him, to devote our futures and trust in Him even when it seems risky. He invites us to make room in our futures, to make space in our hearts, to exercise the muscles of our faith. Christ’s teachings are rooted in wisdom and self-sacrifice with a foundation that has lasted thousands of years. Christianity’s teachings are considered conservative, they’re truly radical in how different they are from the wisdom of the world, both in the modern world and 2,000 years ago.

However, as Christians, we know we are not alone and walk hand in hand with the apostles and saints that came before us, who also struggled to reconcile their lives and their minds with teachings that are hard to accept. No matter what you struggle with, be it the real presence in the Eucharist, the Church’s stance on homosexuality or contraceptives, we need to take the time to research what challenges us, take the time to digest it, and accept that it may take time to fully accept the teachings and that it may be difficult to live radically by their wisdom. God is not afraid of us and invites us to struggle with Him, to argue with Him, so we truly know what we believe in. Through difficult teachings, God calls us to a deeper understanding and deeper relationship to Him. Don’t be one of the ones who walks away when the going gets rough and join the community that has struggled and yet grown closer to God.

 

 

Soul Candy for Those who are Always Late to the Party

If you have forgotten that it’s still Easter, or even worse, celebrated one day and completely forgot about it, St. John Chrysostom has some encouraging words for you.   

I can completely relate to the struggle to celebrate for fifty days straight.  I’ve heard people describe Lent as a marathon, but for a melancholic like me, it’s almost more difficult remembering to celebrate for fifty days then do penance for forty.  But God calls us to rejoice, whether we wake up every morning hollering “Jesus is risen!” as we throw the covers off or if we slap our foreheads every time we see the white vestments on Sunday, swearing we will keep sacred this feast going into the week, knowing we will most likely forget by the time we head to the doughnut and coffee hand-out station.  

St. John Chrysostom has some consoling words for us late-comers.  In the Church’s Eastern Rite, they read one of his most famous catechetical sermons every Easter.  Meditating on the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16), it is supposed to be a reminder that whether we’ve held to our Lenten fasts since Ash Wednesday or picked up a random makeshift penance on the back half of the season- even if we just started fasting on Good Friday, we have a reason to celebrate receiving the fullness of God’s mercy in His resurrection.  We’re well into the Easter season, with only a week or so left, which is another perfect time to remind us of God’s perfect mercy despite our imperfect timing:

“If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.” 

There’s enough Easter joy to go around (even five weeks in):

“And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.”

And for the gloomy melancholics like myself, God has created us for the joy of Easter, not for the ridiculously gloomy pit of despair that we inexplicably seem to search out.

“Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. 

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.”

We’re all late to the party, all impoverished in some way, but the Easter season (all FIFTY days) is an extended season of meditation on that very fact as well as the great riches of grace we’ve been given.

Bonus point for those of you who listen to this while meditating on this homily.

I Ran Out of Excuses

I ran out of excuses.  If one were to ask me why I decided to discern my vocation with the Benedictines, in a nutshell that is my answer: I ran out of excuses.  After forty years of life, of serving my country in the United States Marine Corps, of serving the Church as a parish musician for many years, of discerning my vocation for the diocesan priesthood, of teaching children with special needs, of working in the foreign exchange market while teaching English and Spanish as second languages, I, myself, needed what . . . ?  In May of 2008, while looking for an answer, and to “get [the idea of religious life] out of my system,” I was on an extended visit to St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC where I found myself entering into the prayer life of monks who had been praying in our nation’s capital since 1924.  The daily routine of prayer begins at 5:20 a.m. and is returned to four more times throughout the day.  The monk’s steadily chanted prayer life brought a peace to the depths of my soul – a peace that had long been missing.  Even more than the prayer, the opportunity to be still before the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour each day in anticipation of Vespers gave me a sense of what I had longed for and had missed since leaving the seminary.   But my experience also made me afraid, for my contemplation made me to think about the rich young man who asked Jesus what one must do to gain eternal life.  After Our Lord’s reply, the man said, “I do all that already!  What still is missing?”  Then came the difficult call of Jesus that sent the young man walking away “because he had many possessions.”  

Don’t get me wrong – I knew the call of Jesus is surely a joyful call, one that unites the person all the more to Him.  Everything of value has a cost, however, and the more valuable the item, the higher the cost.  Religious life is neither for wimps nor for the fool-hearty.  This is why it takes years of discernment before one finally makes solemn profession.  Back to the rich young man – I didn’t want to be that guy.  I didn’t want to walk away from Jesus.  I knew in my heart He was calling me to a more disciplined way of seeking and finding Him.  Compared with others, I may not have had many possessions, but still, what I had was mine.  Most of all, I had my freedom to come and go as I pleased, and to pray or not pray whenever I wanted.  In this life before entering the monastery, I had all I needed and some of what I wanted, but I knew something was still missing.  I was longing for a more direct connection to Our Lord.  That is what I was to find in consecrated religious life.  

The excuses I gave to God were many, all beginning with the question, “yes, but what about . . . ?”  “Let me worry about that” was His reply.  “If you are seeking Me, let that go.”  Again and again, with one objection after the other came the same reply.  “Let me worry about that.  If you are seeking Me, let that go.”  Oh how easy it was to hold onto the things of this world and not of this world – things that brought me security and uncertainty, happiness and dejection, joy and frustration, contentment and emptiness.  But above all was an intangible longing for something more.  The monastic life, I have learned, has all that and much more as well.  There is security in the structured way we live, but also uncertainty about the monastery’s future.  I get to do what I love by teaching in the Abbey School, and yes, there can be much frustration living in such close proximity with my brothers (who by the way, continue to put up with me!).  And although there is a genuine happiness in the monastery, at times here, too, there is an emptiness – when the sea of Our Lord’s grace leaves me at “low tide” and all is exposed.   But then the tide returns and I am no longer at the water’s edge, but am now submerged in a merciful and grace-filled ocean where nothing matters but Him.

No longer do I have to wonder what God wants from me – I am living it daily, and sometimes failing miserably at it, but I am nonetheless supported by His merciful love and grace.  I now have the fraternity and acceptance of others who have answered a similar call by God to seek and encounter Him in the consecrated religious life.  Monastic life continues to provide a deep peace in the depths of my soul – a peace that “surpasses all understanding,” and that grows deeper as each day passes.

Why am I writing all this to you?  To share a bit of the joy I have come to experience by deciding to at last stay with Jesus, and not to walk away from Him.  No more excuses.  By submitting my will to His through the vowed religious life, I am able to see how my monastic vocation is His gift, for which I daily say, “thank you.”  To be able to do so sincerely makes all the difference.  

Please pray for all who have been called to this life, and for those whom Our Lord is calling even now.  By your prayers, please help us to hear Our Lord’s voice that trumps all excuses.  Help us hear Him when he says, “let Me worry about that; if you are seeking Me, let that go.”

Fostering Good Growth

Meals at Andy’s are not meant to be relaxing in the sense that guests sit and wait for their food to be ready. Instead, they are assigned portions of the meal that they will contribute upon arrival: appetizers, salad, drinks, main course or dessert. This is not asking too much when there are eggs, herbs, vegetables, fruits and honey readily available. Before long, the back yard is buzzing with activity.

Eating dinner at Andy’s is a treat that I rate higher than getting invited out for supper anywhere else (which I love).  I have had this privilege exactly two times and I will tell you why you want to be on this invite list. You see, rather than landscaping with shrubs and bushes, Andy’s is landscaped with vegetables and herbs. Instead of entering through the front door, guests head directly into the backyard garden where the table and outdoor kitchen is located. The table is large and surrounded with a brick oven, a grill, climbing vines and twinkle lights.

It’s helpful to know a good ‘vine grower’ for a lot of reasons.

Even if horticulture isn’t your thing—it’s hard to get around it at this point in the year. Ads blast on the radio, Home Depot is packed and everyone from restaurateurs to brew houses boast their ‘locally grown’ menus. You may even hope to have a green,  patio view of this novelty in the midst of the city scape.

Isn’t it great when those who have a gift for growing step up so that the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their labor? They can simultaneously make a place more beautiful and feed people. What a gift!

There is a fantastic collection of names for God in our lectionary. Vine Grower is among my favorites. I will admit that when the readings (like today’s reading) turn toward gardening metaphors, I look to the gardening gurus in my life that illustrate some of the finer points of fostering good growth like a good Vine Grower might do. I notice a few things that great gardeners seem to have in common:

1.     Vine Growers tend diligently: whether by weeding, watering or fertilizing--A good gardener is never far from their crop.

2.     Vine Growers prune extensively: As difficult as it can be to see a beautiful rose bush hacked down to nubs, doing so allows for the plant to flourish more abundantly.

3.     Vine Growers apply compost: Nothing is wasted-- no banana peel, watermelon rind or coffee grounds are tossed aside without purpose. Each provides essential nutrients for the benefit of the entire garden.

4.     Vine Growers nourish those around them, particularly by feeding them.

Maybe it’s easier to think about our own experiences of growth from this vantage point.  I need that reminder that the Vine Grower is never far from me. I know how uncomfortable it is to be pruned, yet in so doing, I am encouraged—even expected to grow more vibrantly, and I am nourished by the very things I might have imagined to be trash, used-up or spent.

Because of these things—not in spite of them-- I can hope to bear fruit; perhaps even to feed those around me (green thumb or not).

 

With a Burning Heart

Every Easter season, I’m struck with the story of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke. Perhaps it’s because I relate to the two disciples in question, who begin the story with heavy hearts. Unbeknownst to them, they encounter Jesus, because “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).  They tell Jesus of the mysterious events of the crucifixion and their discovery of the empty tomb.  Christ then explains the Scripture to them and reveals Himself in the breaking of the bread. The disciples finally recognize Him and their response to this revelation is one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Many times in my life, I’ve gone through dark periods  – the infamous dark valley of Psalm 23. Like the disciples, I enter a mixed period of doubt, hope and wonder when life doesn’t go the way I planned, or I encounter an unexpected setback. During these periods, I wonder at the presence of Christ in my life and question His will. I know that I’m traveling to a new destination, but I feel uncertain, perplexed and sometimes sad and lost. And then, oftentimes without realizing it, I encounter Christ along the way.

In a similar way the disciples could not recognize Jesus, Christ enters my life and moves me in ways that I don’t immediately recognize. I’m blinded by past suffering and errors and afraid to hope for what’s to come. Suddenly, everything falls into place. My eyes are opened and I suddenly see God’s plan for me.  Christ’s presence in my life raises my spirit and gives me new hope. And again and again I recognize the burning in my heart that comes with the truth and love of Christ. Only the Lord can make my heart burn in such a way, as I renew my Baptismal vows every Easter season. The disciples encountered the Lord on the road and God in the dark valley guided the shepherd. In such a way, the Lord has led me through a dark valley and I celebrate his resurrection with my family. He has met me on the road.

The tale of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus reminds me that Christ pulls through in his promises.  He invites me to renew myself with his resurrection.  Sometimes I don’t recognize the way the Lord moves me in my life, but I just have to trust that He will guide me. He challenges me to reacquaint myself with His word and fall back in love with Him.  They say that hindsight is 20/20 and, at least for me, that’s very true. In retrospect, when I consider moments in my life when I felt lost or needed extra guidance, I realize that I became stronger and was on my way to a new beginning. When I doubt the Lord’s presence in my life, I must remember to be extra vigilant to an encounter with Christ along the way.  No matter how long the road – or the dark valley – Christ will lead me to my destination.

 

Hellbender

“He descended into hell.”

What a cryptic phrase from the Apostles Creed!  What do we mean when we say these words at Mass every Sunday, or when we begin the Rosary? Did Jesus really go to hell?  Or, was it Sheol?  Or Hades?  Or the place of the just who could not enter heaven until Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross in atonement for our sins? Is there still the possibility of eternal damnation, or is “hell” merely an antiquated concept that the Church has outgrown because of Vatican II?  For answers let us consider The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 631 to 635.

The phrase, “He descended into hell,” must be considered in tandem with what immediately follows: “On the third day He rose again.”  As the Catechism states, “The Apostle’s Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth.” [CCC631] Here we see the “both/and” dichotomy of the Catholic faith: Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  An easy trap to fall into is to focus only on one over the other.  One only has to see latest news stories coming out of Egypt or Syria to see that man is capable of great evil, but is his nature totally depraved?  Good Friday without Easter Sunday? Or the opposite end of the spectrum which some have termed “Christianity Lite” for those whose comfortable lives give them the promise of heaven without the reality of hell, or forgiveness without repentance? The truth lies between the two extremes.  All of humanity was forever changed because “on the third day He rose again,” but there is no Resurrection without a Crucifixion, and our willful embrace or rejection of this metaphysical reality effects how we live (or should be living).

A Catholic’s affirmation that Jesus was “raised from the dead presupposes that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his Resurrection.” [CCC632] That is, “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.”  But, by descending to the dead, did Jesus destroy the hell of eternal damnation? Oh, that the demands of faith could be that easy!  No, Jesus descended to the dead “to free the just who had gone before him.” [CCC633].  “He descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” [CCC632].  So where is the “there?”

We shouldn’t think of hell as a place, but as a state of the soul in relation to God.  Biblical terms of “Sheol” and “Hades” are synonymous – the former is in Hebrew, and the latter in Greek.  Both are the “abode of the dead,” but this description still evokes the idea of a place.  Matters of the soul are difficult to envision, so we use imagery to help grasp metaphysical realities.  The souls in the “abode of the dead” are “deprived of the vision of God,” and this is true for the evil or righteous alike.  Jesus went for the holy souls who awaited their Savior “in Abraham’s bosom,” from the parable of the poor man Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31].  Remember, in this parable, reference is made to the resurrection of the dead.  As the parable teaches: belief must begin with Moses and the Prophets, because “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” [Luke 16:31]. 

Believers and unbelievers alike can agree that Jesus was killed.  But those who believe that Jesus is God must then logically conclude that God died on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago. But, no! God cannot die!  One might then conclude incorrectly that “Jesus cannot be God because God cannot die.” Or another false belief will arise: that Jesus never really died, but was taken down from the cross before it was too late.  

How do we solve this riddle that Jesus Christ is God, and that “Jesus was crucified, died and was buried?” Again, from the Catechism: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead” to “open heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” [CCC635]  

Our discussion has now brought us into the metaphysical realm where images to not work.  What is the soul? What makes a person divine?  These questions are beyond the scope of this article.  Sufficient for now must be the simple faith and belief that Jesus Christ is both God and man.  He is a divine person who has a human soul.  The two are united and inseparable, and because God does not die, for He is Life Itself, after the Crucifixion, God descended into hell to release all who were waiting for the messianic promises of the Old Testament to be fulfilled.  Not even death could contain Him, so we can say with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy victory?  O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55].

The Resurrection itself is too important an event in history to celebrate for one day only, which is why the Church celebrates the Octave of Easter, culminating with Divine Mercy Sunday.    And, although Lent is forty days, Easter is fifty, culminating with Pentecost!

As we celebrate the most central mysteries of our faith during this holiest of liturgical seasons, let us all raise a glass to and be grateful for the unfathomable mercy of Jesus.  And, for those in the Washington, DC area, please join us Sundays during the Easter Season to celebrate at the most aptly named place for such an occasion: The Hellbender Brewing Company.

 

It's Always the Nice Ones

She was so pleasant when I met her.  She laughed politely in bed and stated that she, “Didn’t want to come to the ER, but the vomiting and dizziness had become so bad over the last two months that I had to come here.”  I asked her a few more questions. Her vomiting was worse when she moved from sitting to standing positions and with any kind of motion…maybe she just had vertigo?  She was also dizzy, which further pointed me in the direction of this benign diagnosis.  Her bowel movements were regular.  However, her history also included profuse right quadrant tenderness and night sweats.  She had lost over 40 lbs over the last three months.  She attributed the weight loss to her inability to keep food down and was actually pleased with the results.  Aside from confirming the existence of profuse upper right quadrant tenderness she had already reported, the patient’s complete physical exam revealed no clues to her condition.

I hoped her condition would be benign.  However, her symptoms affected almost every system.  Over the course of the evening, my preceptor ordered labs, an ultrasound of the patient’s abdomen, and a CT scan of her abdomen.  Things happen quickly in the emergency room, but they also happen slowly.  The process of ordering and interpreting all her blood work and resulting imaging took 4-6 hours.  She was quite sick, so I needed to check on her several times through my shift.  She was always positive and became a vibrant presence for most of my shift.  She was 60, with a daughter who was 27 who had just graduated from nursing school. 

Her CT scan came back showing masses consistent with cancer that had metastasized to her liver, lungs, spine, and bones. When my preceptor saw the CT scan, he asked me, “Was she nice?”  I responded, “yes.”  “It’s always the nice ones,” he replied.  I’ll never forget his question or his response.  He did not express disappointment that such a bad thing could happen to someone so good.  He said, “It’s always the nice ones.”  He continued, “I swear anytime someone nice comes in, they have cancer.”

After receiving her diagnosis, my patient asked for some chap stick and a blanket.  As a student I had the time to bring them to her.  When I brought them to her, she smiled sadly and told me her 27 year old daughter would be devastated by the news.  Then, she started describing her cross necklace that she wore daily.  She talked about how it encouraged her to be kind to other people and reminded her of the importance of God in her life.  She said that she forgot to wear it today, but that when she heard my name, “Christian,” she felt immediately comforted.  She laughed and wished me luck in my future.  She thanked me for caring for her that night.  How could she be grateful?  She had just discovered that she had cancer. 

Bad things happen to good people.  Life is not fair, but that night this patient reminded me that we have a choice to react joyfully to even those dark moments of our lives with kindness, joy, and laughter. 

Souping Up Your Rosary Game

Yes, another rosary blogpost on a Catholic blog. The rosary is an oft-written about topic: the importance of it, the fruit of it, etc. It's almost become a Catholic cliche. I want to offer this article to those of you who are in the midst of a love/hate or on again off again type of relationship with the rosary (and let’s be honest, most people who are trying to regularly pray it are at least partially in one of those two camps).  

I had my conversion praying bad rosaries, muting on commercial breaks to rush through a decade, hoping that I could pray my way out of the eternal condemnation I knew I was heading towards (I mean our Lady promised it right), until I realized those three minute windows of time contained a certain peace that I longed for. So I kept praying the rosary as best I could, and things starting melting away: destructive habits and then eventually my desire for them. And mysteriously, new graces and convictions began to replace them. And so I've continued praying it, as best I can. Maybe not daily (though I wish it was), but consistently, through dryness and bountiful grace, the graces contained in the rosary keep coming.

I was talking about this with my spiritual director and he was re-convincing me how necessary the devotion is with a terrifying story of an exorcism. In the midst of the exorcism the demon began laughing at the priest and called the faithful a bunch of fools. The priest told him to elaborate in the name of Jesus, and it replied that the heads of the evil ones servants are utterly crushed by the recitation of the rosary. We carry a great key to our freedom in our pockets and were fools because we never use it.

All that being said, the rosary is not an easy prayer to pray. We live in the age of distraction, so sitting still for 20 or so minutes and focusing on a string of prayers and meditating on scenes from the gospel, if we were honest, seems like the last thing an overstimulated mind would want to participate in.  Keeping the mind focused on such a repetitive, involved prayer can seem more like trying to ride a bull then a serene focusing on the Lord.  It can often be the most dry and distracted, rote and bland addition to our devotional lives. And sometimes it should be, but I want to offer some ways to dive more deeply into the mystery of this devotion for each of the ailments that seem to afflict us rosary-averse people.

St. Louis De Montfort offers several methods for entering into the rosary.  This resource is a treasure trove and is great in an of itself, but for the sake of writing a more interesting blog post, I’ll highlight a couple of them and also add some different tidbits that you can work into your prayer to help spice it up.

 

FOR THOSE POOR DISTRACTED SOULS

I recently came to the conclusion that if I was going to pray the rosary consistently I needed to do it the car from time to time.  I can never seem to focus, and I feel like I’m cheating prayer fitting it into my commute because I’m not finding other time to set aside for things like the rosary.  But alas, sometimes we have to start with the the less than ideal.  So I started praying with St. Louis’s second method to help me focus.  You add a word after “Jesus” to bring your mind back to the mystery you’re meditating on, to praise Him, etc (i.e. “Jesus becoming man, born to poverty, crucified for my sins, etc.).  Not only did this help keep my attention, but I actually got lost in prayer.  My car rides became the most fruitful part of my spiritual life.

 

FOR THE NOT SO VALIANT PRAYER WARRIOR

I’m the worst intercessor I know.  People ask for my prayers, and despite my best wishes (not necessarily effort) I always forget to pray for them.  The rosary has offered a solution to that as well.  Here’s a simple method for interceding with the rosary: 1) Jot down all the prayer requests you receive (have an email folder set aside or whatever).  2) Read the requests before you begin the rosary or pick a few per decade. 3) Throw in some one-liners in between the proper prayers.  This article has a good suggestion for a simple way to intercede using St. Elizabeth of the Trinity’s simple method for praying for others.  In his third method, while meditating on the crucifixion, St. Louis dedicates each “Hail Mary” to each of the nine choirs of angels, asking them to pray for a particular intention (i.e. “Holy Seraphim, ask God… Hail Mary… Holy Cherubim, ask God… Hail Mary… and so on).  I throw a decade or two like this in there from time to time. The possibilities are endless here.

 

FOR THOSE WHO GET ANNOYED WITH THE INTRODUCTORY PRAYERS (JUST ADMIT YOU’RE ONE OF US)

I also found that I got bogged down during the introductory prayers (I know, I’m really getting lazy), but I found that the Dominican way of beginning the rosary on Reddit of all places.  It’s really simple and to the point and gets my heart ready for prayer.

 

FOR THOSE LOOKING FOR AN EXTRA, PERSONAL UMPF

Lastly, someone taught me this 3-step way of praying the “Jesus Prayer”.  Sometimes I pause between each decade, pray this and then apply whatever came up during the decade.  Here’s the method:

1. Call to mind Jesus’ presence.  Make an act of faith that He is present to you.  Here and now.  Picture Him sitting across from you, His arms open, ready to receive what you have for Him.

2.  And He asks:  “What do you want to give to me?”  Bring to Him all your thoughts, feelings and desires- what is on your mind that’s impacting you- good and bad?  And then He asks “What do you want in return?”  Each meditation has a grace to ask for laid out.  In your own words, pray to receive this grace.

3.   Lastly, recite the Jesus prayer.  “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Remember as you recite His most powerful name, that with the name of Jesus comes His presence, power and healing.  Repeat this process as many times as you need to in order to prepare yourself to encounter the Lord.

These have been little tweaks that have helped me transition from the rosary becoming a commonplace ritual that I powder my way through as quickly as possible to really the heart of my prayer life.  Use what you like, mix and match, and offer some more suggestions in the comments section.  Happy praying!